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Take your online training program to the next level

The Beginner's Guide to Creating an Online Training Program

Step 1

Define Your Learner Persona and Goals

When you embark on a new training initiative, your first move should be to lay a foundation for your program. The most effective way to ensure the foundation is strong is to clearly define your learner personas, business goals, engagement strategy and, finally, a measurement for the initiative's success.

Define Your Learner Personas

In inbound marketing methodology, buyer personas are the crux. Buyer personas are semi-fictional representations of an ideal customer, created based on a combination of market research and real data about an organization’s existing customers. Defined buyer personas give a company’s marketing efforts structure, context and insight.

The same is true for learner personas, except that in this exercise, you’ll be looking at your employees, contractors and partners, in addition to your customers (depending which of these you intend to train). Constructing detailed profiles of your prototypical learners is a multi-step process that will help you create more effective and engaging courses and give you something to reference throughout the steps in creating an online training initiative.

Think of the process as one of information gathering and analysis, followed by a persona write-up. Through research of your target audience, interviews with sample users and supervisors and surveys you conduct throughout a user’s training, you’ll be able to derive fully conceptualized personas to drive your program.

Where Do You Start?

Start with the basics: demographics. Even without any current training recipients, it’s possible to develop an understanding of the demographics of your target learner. Using the interviews you conducted with sample users and what you already know about your target learner, define their age, family structure, location, gender, etc. For example, if you expect that your learners are contractors who are primarily millennials, that classification would be an important aspect of their profile.

Also, consider the problems you might help these users solve—problems like lack of interest in materials, no time for understanding complicated product training or performance inadequacies. Dive deep!

More importantly, refine your persona by addressing how each persona likes to learn, based on the topics you plan to teach (especially when it comes to Step 4, the engagement strategy step). Use interviews and survey questions to find out more about their learning styles. Individual preferences on learning alone is not enough to drive engagement. Still, you can derive valuable information when you place the questions in the context of the learning topics. For example, a learner may not generally enjoy reading text over watching a video; however, if the topic contains content that they’ll need to digest slowly and return to often, text may make more sense.

Offer your sample user some options. Ask: Do you like to be trained to perform [specify name] tasks via video, audio, text or simulations? Do you prefer audio or text for product information? Ask for their feelings on instructor-led training and on how much time they’d like to spend engaging in training per week. What about per month? Per year?

Discovering these things about your target audience can help ensure your users get the most from your initiative.

Other things to consider here: How will you reach your target audience? How will you position your online program? Or how digitally aware are your personas? Include elements of your user’s story that involve engagement and training to ensure your persona profiles remain relevant to your cause and, more importantly, that your cause remains relevant to your personas.

Define Your Business or Department Goals

Before we begin discussing business goals, let’s start by explaining the SMART approach to goal planning. Setting SMART goals is an effective way to ensure all of your team members are aligned and that your goals meet a specific set of criteria. Ask yourself the following questions when using the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) method:

  • Specific

    What is specific about the goal? Specify a time, date and any additional unique details about the goal or how you plan to measure the success of the goal.

  • Measurable

    Is the goal measurable? Determine what will indicate successful achievement of the goal.

  • Achievable

    Is the goal achievable? Have a discussion with your team to define goals that are realistically achievable in your organization.

  • Relevant

    Is the goal relevant to expectations for performance or continued learning? The goal should be tied to your training use case and your company or department’s mission.

  • Time-bound

    Is the goal time-bound? Specify how frequently the task will be performed or the timeframe for completion of the task.

Now, use the SMART approach to think about the goals you are trying to achieve with online training. You’ll be glad you defined these when you begin developing your program strategy.

Consider whether you are trying to:

  • Reduce the onboarding time for new employees, contractors or client partners.
  • Increase revenue by improving your brand experience across new markets.
  • Attract and nurture new leads with educational content.
  • Reduce churn and boost retention across your ecosystem of customers, partners and service providers.
  • Decrease support costs by streamlining support and reducing the number of support tickets your team receives.
  • Reduce length of sales cycle, close more deals and increase revenue.
  • Or do some combination of the above.

You should also attach specifics to these goals to ensure they are time specific, based on the needs of your company. Then keep these goals at the forefront of your strategy as you move through the remaining steps in this guide.

Define How You Will Engage Your Audience


Some of the more challenging aspects of developing an online training strategy are defining what type of content will best serve your target audience and determining how, when and where it can do that. In this step, type, format, testing and delivery all come into play.

The goal of content is to deliver and land your messaging at the right times, to train your user and to deliver incremental, relevant knowledge. You should not be using content to simply create volume in your training efforts or to check boxes. Every piece of content should be helpful to your users in some manner.


What content will you deliver?

Will you only deliver product training? Only customer training? A combination? What will be useful for your users? It’s always important to consider your learner personas’ preferences or needs and where each content type and format best fits in their training journey. For instance, a high-level video overview of a product’s benefits won’t work for someone who is already familiar with product benefits but needs to know exact specs. In that case, a spec sheet might be a better format.

With that example in mind, explore content formats to help you define how you’ll engage your audience. Consider building a list of pros and cons, including factors like time or cost to develop, current assets and ease of deliverability.

Define a plan for testing the training. How will you leverage your training platform’s analytics capabilities to understand your content’s performance? Planning to test at certain points or after the introduction of certain content or choosing a quiz-based testing format, can help you find your strategy’s points of strength or weakness.

Imagine your platform tells you that only 10% of users score over 60% on quizzes distributed after live training. You may be able to conclude that your live training needs to be more engaging, or perhaps shorter or both. Choosing how you will react to your analytics is an important component of the Define stage.


How will you deliver it?

Decide whether or not you are interested in offering asynchronous or synchronous training options. Because asynchronicity allows your users to learn on their own schedules and in locations that work for them, delivering content this way is appealing from an engagement standpoint. Synchronous learning is difficult to scale, therefore not a preferred approach. It can be used when necessary but shouldn’t be your primary method of content delivery.

Synchronous options include live ILT (Instructor-Led Training) and MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses). (See our eLearning Glossary to learn more about eLearning related terms.) Traditional MOOC formats allow you to release certain content on certain dates and can correspond with a Learning Path initiative (more on Learning Paths shortly). GoToTraining and GoToWebinar are other popular synchronous content delivery options.

If you are looking to establish a learner community, in which partners and contractors learn together and discuss training together, releasing content in the synchronous fashion may benefit your cause. Conversely, you can also create discussion forums for community focused, asynchronous learning.

There are also a number of content approaches that can be used to create, format and structure your content. For example, microlearning is a bite-sized approach, where learners take in short, focused courses, one at a time. This training strategy is based on the idea that we retain information more easily when we digest it in small parts. Not only is microlearning in keeping with the trend of designing courses based on neurological truths, but it also corresponds with users' lifestyles. This idea is validated by a recent study by Bersin by Deloitte, which revealed that the average worker may have fewer than five minutes a day to set aside for professional development and training activities. Microlearning can also be a beneficial approach when beginning an online program, as it allows you to start small and expand later.

The Ignite! presentation format leverages microlearning. Ignite! refers to fast-paced presentations typically consisting of 20 slides, each presented by the speaker for 15 seconds. It can be a great way to make a quick point to users and ensure they gain the information they need.

Another content method is the Learning Path approach, in which you determine a clear path to proficiency and set a course sequence. It is lauded by andragogues (teachers of adults) around the world. With proven success and an established methodology, Learning Paths are an excellent choice for content delivery.

Define Your Subject Matter and Learning Objectives

Next, you’ll want to choose a single subject matter to cover in your first course. Since you’ve already defined your goals and learner persona, you probably already have a general sense of what subject matter to cover and have a good understanding of the breadth of topics your training program could include. However, for the purpose of starting small and staying agile, you’ll need to start with one subject matter that can be covered in a small course.

What information will your audience want to learn first? What prerequisite subject matter will lay a solid foundation for courses to come? What skills and knowledge are most valuable to your learners? These are the types of questions you should ask yourself when deciding on the subject matter for your first course.

With the subject matter in mind, it should be increasingly easier to lay out your learning objectives. Learning objectives are statements that tell the learner what they’ll be able to accomplish and perform upon completion of a course. They are great for keeping your team on track when developing content, as well as for setting learners’ expectations about what the course will cover and the value they’ll derive from it.

Learning objectives are great for setting learners’ expectations about what the course will cover and the value they’ll derive from it.

Select one subject matter and write the learning objectives for your first course. Learning objectives should be direct and actionable. For example, “By the end of this course, you will be able to effectively conduct a sales demo.” This statement tells learners the skill they will acquire and the task they’ll be able to perform from learning the content. Try to avoid passive statements that are difficult to measure. For example, “By the end of this course, you will have an understanding of our sales process.” Remember, in order to captivate and engage your audience, learners need to understand the context and value of what they’re learning.

Define How You Will Measure Success

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You’ve defined your engagement strategy and subject matter. Now it's time to define how you’ll measure the course's success. Do this in three parts: 1) define how you’ll measure engagement, 2) determine how you’ll assess user knowledge and 3) appraise how all of this can tie into your business goals.


How will you measure engagement?

A robust training platform offers no shortage of metrics. It is imperative you choose which are relevant to your strategy and goals. At Northpass, we believe in setting criteria for success based on completion of course activities using a feature we call “Milestones,” which allows you to define the standards for course completion.

You can also include any number of metrics to inform your insights, such as:

  • Video engagement analytics
  • Login count
  • Page views
  • Clicks
  • Number of enrollments
  • Quiz submission count
  • Quiz scores
  • Learner progress in a given course

Some metrics are hyper-relevant, such as the completion of course activities. Others, like time spent on page, are common but not entirely useful because learners may simply have a window open without actively engaging in the content. Discard any metrics that don’t give you an accurate portrayal of a user’s engagement.


How will you assess learner knowledge?

Developing meaningful assessment questions is key to determining engagement and knowledge retention. You can use quizzes (either multiple choice or short answer), a practicum submission in your product (this is HubSpot's approach) or individual assignments for each program.

Another excellent way to evaluate competence and engagement is to build assessments that require users to apply knowledge gleaned from the content to real-world situations. We’ll cover this in greater depth in Step 3 of this guide where you’ll be creating your course content.


How will you tie this to business/department goals?

Remember when you defined your business goals and learning objectives? Those definitions will help you define how you’ll measure strategic success.

For example, if you’re doing customer or workforce training, a training platform that integrates with your marketing automation software or Salesforce will get you well positioned. You can look at whether or not you’ve attracted new leads with your training content, at how your program has reduced churn and boosted retention or at the ROI of your training initiative. A simple integration can be important to understanding your initiative’s contribution to realizing those goals.

Whatever your goals, establish your method for measuring success early on and let it guide you through the entire process of building and launching your training program. We’ll revisit this topic in the fifth and final step of this guide where you’ll learn how to measure the success of the program you create.